Minneapolis Park Hero: Alice Dietz
Early in my research of Minneapolis park history for City of Parks, Alice Dietz caught my attention. She had a forty-year career in Minneapolis parks, 1916-1957. She rose to prominence in the park system quickly from her start as a recreation director. In January 1918, the park board received a letter from an appreciative mother asking that Dietz be reappointed as recreation director at Maple Hill (Beltrami) Park. She was not reappointed at Maple Hill; in the park board’s annual report for 1918 Dietz was singled out for praise for her work at bigger, busier Bryant Square Park. The next year Dietz moved again, this time to the most visible and important recreation job in the city as the director of the Logan Park field house, the only year-round facility the park board operated.
Dietz needed very little time to establish her reputation at Logan Park. In an article on the opening of the 1920 summer playground season, the Minneapolis Tribune (June 20) commented that Dietz had already “taught the Logan Park neighborhood what a field house was really meant to be.” Apparently in the seven years between its construction in 1912 and Dietz’s arrival the field house had been less successful.
By the end of that summer the Tribune (October 17) provided an unusual glimpse of park life “in a community where there are a dozen nationalities struggling with the intricacies of life in a new country.” In that environment, the paper reported, Mrs. Dietz was trusted by “children and mothers alike.” As a result, Dietz was able to “buoy the self-confidence of the women who are awed by the greater facility of their children in the new tongue and to make the children realize what they owe to their parents.”
Among her responsibilities were teaching drama, dance and arts and craft classes, directing all athletic activities for girls, and putting on plays and pageants. The previous year she had also managed boys athletic activities developing “proficiency in boxing and football that surprised even herself” the Tribune reported. The paper continued that “almost to her regret,” a man had then been brought in to look after the boys and young men. In between all this she “listens to all the troubles that everybody tells her…and never turns a hair through it all.” The Tribune also praised the “Logan Park spirit” she had instilled noting that “the children have come to feel that the place belongs to them and they look over a newcomer with stern eyes. He has to measure up to what they think is proper Logan Park behavior.”
Dietz’s work with pageants and performances at Logan Park led to her being handed responsibility for the citywide playground pageants staged at Lyndale Park at the end of each summer.
The first two pageants, “Mother Goose” in 1918 and “The Pied Piper” in 1919, were directed by Julia Beckman, a teacher at North High School, but from 1920 Dietz wrote and directed the playground pageants as they became one of the highlights of the summer playground program. Children from every Minneapolis park were involved in creating costumes and props for the program. Up to 1,500 children appeared in the pageants each year which were staged on the hill overlooking the Rose Garden in Lyndale Park. The two-night performances were attended by up to 40,000 people. The popularity of the pageants caused the park board to consider more than once (first in 1930) the construction of an amphitheater on the site. Except for a brief hiatus during the Depression, the pageants continued through 1941. The pageant was incorporated into the Aquatennial in 1940, the first year of that celebration. With the ascendancy of the Aquatennial, and with the nation at war, the pageant was discontinued a year later.
The pageants were original scripts written by Dietz. While she created small roles in her pageants for park commissioners, she never allowed commissioners to have speaking parts. After her second pageant in 1921, “Weaver of Dreams,” Dietz asked the park board to allow her to retain copyright of the pageant scripts. The park board agreed that she could retain those copyrights as her personal property. (I have seen no indication that Dietz ever licensed those or subsequent scripts for performances by others.)
I recently found in a scrapbook kept by Victor Gallant evidence that Dietz had a background in theater as a performer before she worked for the park board. I had found an item in park board proceedings that Dietz requested a leave of absence for a week in the 1920s to attend a dance workshop in New York at her own expense, which was granted by the board. From that reference I knew Dietz had an interest in dance beyond the classes she taught at Logan Park and the dances she had incorporated into her pageant scripts. But the undated newspaper clip that appeared at the time of her 40th anniversary of employment with the park board (her last year), mentions her own theater performances as a girl.The article that accompanied the photos above attributed the 1906 photo to a touring company of “Buster Brown,” the 1910 photo to a performance of J. M. Barrie’s play, “The Little Minister,” with the greatest Broadway actor of that era, Maude Adams, and the 1912 photo to an Orpheum Theater production of “School Days.” In addition to performing with Adams — who originated the role of Peter Pan on Broadway in 1905 and was by some accounts the highest paid actor of her time and the most famous woman in America — Dietz also performed with Eddie Cantor, although that was well before Cantor’s fame on radio.
As the Director of Community Centers in Minneapolis parks, Dietz played a central role in the redefinition of recreation in the park context. The range of activities and classes offered at Logan Park was unprecedented in Minneapolis. In addition to expanding the range of activities provided for both children and adults, Dietz oversaw the conversion in 1922 of the large social room at Logan Park into a gymnasium for sports. The other recreation centers in Minneapolis at that time were little more than warming houses for skaters. They were later criticized by a national park expert as too big for warming houses and too small for anything else. (Weir Report, 1944.) Despite the phenomenal popularity of Logan Park under Dietz’s direction, the park board did not build another similar facility until the 1960s. Perhaps park commissioners feared that while they could replicate the field house they could not replicate Dietz.
Dietz’s role in the development of park programming in the 1920s at Logan Park was significant, but her greatest achievement may have been in training the army of recreation supervisors who worked in parks across the city in the 1930s. With the onset of the Depression in 1930 and the slashing of recreation budgets, Dietz lost her three assistants at Logan. Summer recreation positions in parks across the city were slashed from seventy-five to zero in 1933. When the American Legion tried to fill the void in eleven parks by providing volunteer supervisors, they were sent to Dietz for training.
That was just a glimmer of what would follow. For the 1934 playground season the Works Progress Administration inaugurated a recreation program that at its peak would place more than 240 recreation supervisors in Minneapolis parks and playgrounds. The WPA recreation program continued until 1943. During those ten years, thanks to federal and state work-relief programs, Minneapolis parks offered the most comprehensive, year-round recreation programming in the city’s history. The entire program, including the training of hundreds of new personnel, was coordinated by Alice Dietz from her office at Logan Park.
That experience served her and the city well after WWII when the park board was able to expand recreation programming and offer year-round activities at a handful of parks. Dietz was once again responsible for training the first generation of full-time, year-round recreation supervisors employed by the park board.
These are the outlines of Alice Dietz’s remarkable career in the recreation department of Minneapolis parks. I know little about Alice Dietz beyond what I have related here other than the fact that she was president of the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association in 1947. If you can tell us more about Dietz — or you have another person to nominate as a Minneapolis Park Hero — please comment here or contact me at the e-mail address below.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© David C. Smith